Formulating a South Asian human rights mechanism

SAARC countries might have bilateral differences, but there is general consensus that a lot of their human rights concerns are common

Formulating a South Asian human rights mechanism
Regional Initiative for a South Asia Human Rights Mechanism (RISHRM) recently organised a national workshop on "Building Consensus for a South Asia Human Rights Mechanism" in Lahore. The joint organisers were the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and Bytes for All. The aim of the conference featuring an illustrious array of participants including Hina Jilani, IA Rehman, Afrasiab Khattak, Dr Rasool Baksh Raees, Dr Ali Qizilbash, Dr Mizanur Rahman (Chairperson, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh) and Nepalese representative and member Forum Asia, Subodh Raj Pyakurel, was establishing a human rights mechanism and formulating a regulatory regional body.

Human Rights Mechanism

While South Asian countries might have their bilateral differences, there is general consensus that a lot of the human rights concerns are common to every single country in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). And hence comes the need to formulate a body that explores the challenges that the region is facing, and creates opportunities for engagement.

FORUM-ASIA South Asia Programme Officer Gayatri Khandhadai believes there's still a lot that has to be done before South Asia reaches consensus over a body that monitors and regulates the regional human rights mechanism.

"There remains a lot to be done in this regard. The initiative is still in a nebulous stage. However, our engagement with the people, civil society and government in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan over the last few years has been a source of encouragement. As was pointed out in the workshop the last SAARC Summit in Addu, 2011 directed the formation of an Inter Governmental Expert Body towards the establishment of a regional mechanism for the empowerment of women. We have also reviewed various engagements of SAARC in human rights issues. These include the adoption of instruments and declarations relating to women, children, food security, climate change, democracy and other related matters. Therefore SAARC is not far removed from human rights or regional cooperation towards the promotion and protection of human rights," she said.

Khandhadai called on the civil society to encourage their respective governments to converge on the creation of a common human rights mechanism.

"It is now time for civil society to actively engage with the respective governments and the region as a whole towards the realisation of such a mechanism. The case for establishing this mechanism is strong, with virtually no justifiable reasoning against it. There must thus be focus on what kind of a mechanism we want and how we should go about advocating for it. Our engagement with the Foreign Ministry in Pakistan and some of the Ambassadors of South Asian States has been positive and we hope to follow this up. Hopefully, Pakistan will be among the States championing this cause," she added.

Common Challenges

Khandhadai believes that with so much common among the South Asian countries, it is no surprise then that there are commonalities in the challenges that these countries face.

"Perhaps among our several commonalities is the challenges we face too. The region continues to grapple with extreme levels of poverty, inequality, illiteracy, unemployment, sectarian violence, extremism and terrorism resulting in serious human rights violations relating to torture, arbitrary detentions, disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officials, marginalization of minorities, and violence against women and children.  Violations of the rights to health, education, food, water, housing, environment, and employment security are equally rampant."

Bytes for All's Gender Programme Manager Gul Bukhari dubs "culture of impunity" as a common South Asian concern.

"A culture of impunity is the most striking common feature that spans the spectrum of human rights violations across the SAARC countries. Violence against women including domestic violence and rape, minorities rights and issues, persecution based on religion and/or ethnicity, human trafficking and climate change are all issues common to South Asian countries. Some violations are aided and abetted by the states, others by non-state actors. But it's the culture of impunity that has to change to be able make a difference," she said.

Khandhadai echoes Bukhari's claims.

"South Asia is a complex region to begin with. However, all South Asian States in their domestic legislations have provided for human rights guarantees. They are also parties to several of the core International Human Rights treaties and instruments. However, the implementation and realisation of these rights has been rather low. Situation  of  women, children and minorities throughout the region is problematic. Human rights defenders have also been targeted in this region. However, there is an urgent need to recognise human rights as a common concern of all peoples in the region and to emphasise on the fact that these problems have no boundaries. Hence, we must develop greater regional cooperation to address these issues for greater promotion and protection of human rights," says Khandhadai.


Bukhari says that despite the myriad religious and cultural values in the South Asian countries misogyny seems to be a commonality.

"Interestingly, though South Asia is home to several different major religions and cultures, much of the misogyny is still rooted in the values propagated by these different religious and cultural practices. Thus it appears that education imparting humane values is key for change in attitudes. Further, common standards of women's rights need to be developed that apply to all aspects of women's lives like education, workplace environments, job opportunities, domestic violence, freedom of choice in marriage, divorce, inheritance, and sexual rights etc. Certainly, a regional mechanism for human rights will go a long way towards eradicating misogyny," Bukhari reiterated.

Khandhadai says there has been some progress regarding empowerment of women.

"There is some progress on the issue of a regional mechanism for the empowerment of women. However, there needs to be a greater discourse and discussion on the broad range of human rights that all people and peoples are entitled to under the international instruments. We must thus not lose sight of the broader initiative, while welcoming specialised mechanisms to address these issues."

The Third Gender

So how close are we to guaranteeing equal rights for the third gender? Bukhari believes there's still a lot of work that needs to be done.

"Well, gender is now understood to be a spectrum so it is more appropriate to speak in terms of other genders. An even wider but more suitable question might be how far we are from guaranteeing rights of the LGBTQ people. South Asia is still quite far from the ideal. A few years ago, transgenders in Pakistan gained the right to be recognized as neither male nor female, officially. But with that they lost the right to perform Hajj or Umra or have bank accounts. India turned back in time and criminalized homosexuality recently. This one will be a long haul for this region, where other human rights issues are gaining visibility but LGBTQ and their issues remain largely in the shadows because of fear, criminalization and social rejection."

Ensuring sovereignty

While regional bodies have become a necessity in the modern world, the sceptics still put forward apprehensions pertaining to individual state sovereignty. Khandhadai believes it's high times we realised that sovereignty belongs to the people and not just the states.

"State sovereignty has for long remained an argument used by governments to shield away international criticism or scrutiny. We can see this as a continuing trend today in international platforms. However, there is a growing realisation that human rights violations cannot be addressed in isolation and that it is a common concern. We must also realise that sovereignity belongs to the people and not only the State. Therefore all efforts made to protect human rights is indeed in support of the sovereignty of the people and the State."

The FORUM-ASIA South Asia Programme Officer says that a cooperate attitude among the South Asian states is the need of the hour for the establishment and propagation of a regional mechanism.

"The fundamental idea behind a regional mechanism is to adopt and further a cooperative attitude towards ensuring rights for all and thus States and the civil society will play a vital role in this positive engagement. Other regional mechanisms in Europe, Inter-America, Africa, South East Asia and Arab region have been reasonably successful in addressing human rights.  The hope therefore is that a similar mechanism for this region will benefit all," she said.

Formulation of a common human rights mechanism and a regional body, as things stand, is quite clearly a question of when and not if.